Friday, 5 February 2016

Blackout peril: 'My car skidded almost into the shop windows!'

Road accidents rocketed during WW1 blackouts
You may think 'angry motorists' are a modern phenomenon, to be found only on our fast and overcrowded 21st century roads - but nothing could be further from the truth.

Drivers have been getting worked up behind the wheel for as long as cars have been around, although a hundred years ago it wasn't traffic queues, or roadworks, or speed cameras that were causing annoyance. Rather, it was night-time blackouts that were making conditions hazardous.

Blackouts were imposed all over the country when Zeppelin airships began dropping bombs on Britain during the Great War. Street lighting was reduced, lit windows had to be covered, and the use of headlights on cars was banned. 'Only the small lamps could be used, but dimmed so that they could just merely be seen, not bright enough to cast light on the road,' wrote Maude Boucher, a Bristol mother who kept a journal throughout the Great War.

Unsurprisingly, the number of road accidents rocketed. The Times reported 22 people killed on London streets in the first week of 1916 alone. Tellingly, that number fell to 15 during the second week, when there was a succession of moonlit nights.

According to Maude Boucher, many people developed 'a stay-at-home habit' as a result of the blackout 'because they were too nervous to travel in cars or taxi-cabs.' Those who did venture out often returned somewhat shaken, as the following indignant letter, published on 16 February, 1916 in the Bristol Evening Times and Echo, reveals:
Whilst driving my car from Kingswood to the city on Sunday night, I received one of the worst shocks to my nerves I have experienced. The night, you will remember, was wet and very dark, so dark that with the small lights we are are now permitted, it was impossible to travel at anything but a slow pace, which was fortunate for me, as on nearing Lawrence Hill Bridge I found myself, before I could see it, within a few feet of the first tram standard of a section that are placed in the centre of the road. 
I missed it by inches only, and my car skidded almost into the shop windows on the other side. This is a grave danger to all users of the road that exists in numerous parts of the city, and I suggest that whilst reduced lighting orders are necessary, and in force, whoever controls the standards should have the end ones of each section painted white, or a danger lamp hung on him.
The offending tram standards at Lawrence Hill
Signed simply 'ONE WHO JUST MISSED' the letter was one of many little gems I discovered while writing my book Bristol in the Great War and it prompted me to have a look through my old Bristol photos to try and locate the scene of the near-miss. This turn-of-the-century photo (right) shows the bridge at Lawrence Hill with solid tram standards ranged down the middle of the road. It was probably one of these that our unfortunate correspondent 'missed by inches'!

It wasn't just roads that were hazardous in the dark, open water could prove lethal too, as I discovered while researching Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War. Weymouth harbour was always busy at night, with pubs packed around Hope Square, and during the Great War the area was particularly popular with convalescing Australian servicemen who were stationed in Weymouth. The sight of tipsy Aussies toppling into harbour after one too many beers often provided amusement for locals – until tragedy struck.

One stormy night in January 1916, the body of an Australian soldier was pulled from the harbour and carried into the nearby George Inn, where for over an hour efforts were made to revive him, to no avail. The inquest into the death of Private Herbert Butterworth, 33, heard that he had not been drinking and the accident was more likely to have happened because the harbour was in darkness, due to military lighting restrictions.
Weymouth harbour at the turn of the century

During the next nine days, three more bodies were pulled from the harbour: a New Zealand soldier and two locals, a servant girl, and a seaman. Once again, poor lighting was blamed. At one of the inquests a juror exclaimed: ‘It is bad enough for townspeople but what must it be like for the thousands of military men, strangers, who come to the town?’

The coroner had some stern words too: ‘I think our harbour has been very, very dangerous lately. It is not the town. It is the military authorities who have given us instructions to put the lights out.’ As a result, the lighting around the harbour was improved.

Monday, 1 February 2016

A family tale of grief and sadness from the Somme

My great-uncle Fred Wood
Nine years ago I decided to find out more about a great-uncle of mine who died in the First World War and had been all but forgotten by my family. A working class boy from Bristol, his name was Frederick Wood and he was my maternal grandfather's younger brother. He volunteered for the army in the early days of war, served as a private in the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, and was still only 19 when he was killed in France on 1 July, 1916 - the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The effect his death had on my great-grandparents can only be imagined but they probably nursed their grief quietly within their own four walls, just like thousands of other families during the Great War. My grandfather, who survived four years of fighting, certainly never spoke about his brother when he returned from the Front. In those days people suppressed their grief rather than express such feelings, and I believe this was the reason Fred grew so distant in my family's memory.

However, my grandfather squirrelled away several touching mementoes  of Fred - his final letters from France, some postcards, a couple of photos - and when I discovered them in a chest belonging to my uncle they finally brought into focus a figure that had become frustratingly elusive. Those personal effects shed light on the sort of lad Fred was - gregarious, humorous, and mad about football.

Pte FW Wood: 'Assumed Dead' 
His life was cut short when his battalion was one of the first to go over the top at the launch of the Somme offensive. When I visited Picardy I was able to discover, using the war diaries of Fred's battalion, where and how he probably died: it's likely his platoon was hit by a shell that either killed Fred instantly or left him mortally wounded. His body was never found, but his name is carved on the mighty Thiepval Memorial in Picardy.

Now, nine years after my research began, it means a lot to announce that Bristol Cathedral has invited me to stage an exhibition this summer entitled No News of Fred, telling the very personal story of Fred Wood and his death on the Somme. Beginning on 1 June and running until the end of August, the exhibition will mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, and is being presented as part of the Cathedral's WW1 remembrance project We Have Our Lives.

You can read more about Fred, and my grandfather's heartbreaking search to find out what had happened to him on the battlefield, in my book Letters from the Trenches.

By 1916 the ranks of the Regular British Army had been decimated and it was volunteer soldiers who were relied upon to fight the big offensive on the Somme. Many of our civilian forefathers played their part in the fighting, either as volunteers or conscripts. As a result the Battle of the Somme means a lot to the general public and my exhibition will be just one of many projects this summer marking the battle's 100th anniversary.

Paul Coffey's debut novel
One jump ahead, however, is Paul Coffey, a former journalist whose book 'Shadows of the Somme' has been doing well ever since it was published last year. The novel, Coffey's first, was inspired by his visits to the Western Front battlefields and tells two stories in parallel: one set in 1916 and the other in 2016.

The earlier story takes place during and after the Great War, beginning on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. There are gory descriptions a-plenty which leave the reader in no doubt as to the horror of battle, but as the book follows the fortunes of individual soldiers, so the intensity is leavened by simple yet profound questions concerning their motives and morality. The second story is connected to the earlier one through links discovered by protagonist Tom Harris, who becomes drawn into a near-obsessive search of war and genealogy records to discover more about a name on a war grave that happens to catch his eye.

The stories are well researched and told, with links neatly explained, and no hint as to where the plot is taking us until the end when this reader, at least, was taken very much by surprise!